Using SETTING in Fiction [Part 1]

    Recently I wrote another post called “The Role of Setting in Fiction” where we discussed how important the use of setting is and what kind of role it plays in any kind of book, especially fiction. I know that I was probably saying things you already knew but it had to be said so that we establish what our goal is before diving into the practical side of using SETTING. 

    For today I have decided that I’ll take a few sentences from my latest project and I’ll use them as examples in the few simple exercises we’ll do. Feel free to pick your own or use mine to practice. And don’t laugh at the original ones since my latest story is written without any deep descriptions or paying attention to setting. My goal was to type down the story and then return to it to edit it into the masterpiece it deserves to be 😀 Or something like that.

Let’s start!

Sounds

    Describing noises can create a strong atmosphere or manipulate the feeling of a scene. And at the same time, can arouse the reader’s excitement and anticipation. We can divide the sounds we mainly use in two general categories – background and action. You probably know what I mean but let’s look into each separately and with an example. 

    Background

    I stayed there for a few long minutes, trying to get my bearings. I entered the abandoned office building fifteen minutes ago, I ran up trying to get away from the squad and like the idiot I am, I fell in a stupid hole. Now I was on a beach, with no building it sight and there were two moons. Yep, definitely concussion.

   Now let’s take this example and make it better by adding some extra sounds that will reveal more about the story, more about the place she comes from/goes to, more about the character.

   I stayed there for a few long minutes, trying to get my bearings. I could not detect any movement around me, any sounds of engines or machines rattling, screeching, booming like an angry giant; all I could hear was crickets and some distant howls, like wolves. I’ve never seen or heard a wolf before but if I had, I imagined it would sound like that.

   I entered the abandoned office building fifteen minutes ago, I ran up trying to get away from the squad and like 

the idiot I am, I fell in a stupid hole. Now I was on a beach, with no building it sight and there were two moons. Yep, definitely concussion.

    See the difference? I don’t claim to be the best writer and I did this just now but the difference is huge. In the first quote we find out that she is in a new place after she entered a building. She has no idea how she got there or where ‘there’ is but it is not the same as home. 

   In the second quote we get all this info BUT we also get that she comes from a place where the sound of machines is something natural and she knows those sounds well. Now she hears crickets and some kind of animal in the distance, no machines. The contrast between her home and where she is grows without me saying ‘She is no longer where she was.’ and something blunt like that. We use SETTING to avoid info dumping (or avoid doing it obviously :D)

  The best places where the sounds can play the most influential role would be when the character(s) is somewhere dark and they need to rely on their other senses like hearing, smell, touch; when the character is waiting or stops on purpose to ‘get their bearings’ as in the example – this gives you the perfect opportunity to add subtle setting details or more relevant information. Just make sure the pause is for a reason different than to just dump this information. 

    Finally, when you’re trying to create more suspense in the reader – if somebody is about to be hanged or have their head chopped off it is always good to build some anticipation before doing the deed (gives the reader hope that the character will avoid death muahaha) or go for the opposite, build suspense so that when they escape the reader let’s out a sigh in relief. We all hate when it is plenty obvious that the character is never in real danger.

     Action.

   When I talk about action setting I don’t mean literally action scenes where there is fighting or battle (although those do fall in this category). Any kind of action – running, working, playing, etc – can be strengthened with the right words. One thing to consider here, when we add extra details/description the action stops – that is unavoidable. So the trick is to add just enough and just the right ones to avoid stopping the thrilling action moment and keeping the level of tension high. Let’s look at this example:

    I jumped on his back keeping my blade inside the wound. It was very uncomfortable position but I was not letting go of my weapon. Dropping the rifle, he tried to throw me off his back. I dodged, twisting my weapon inside him. He screamed but didn’t fall. Stubborn bastard.

  He threw us both at the nearest support beam, almost crushing my back in the process. I lost hold of my saber and clinged to his armor. He slammed us again against the cement, my head ringing from the clash.

    Now let’s see the same example but with a few extra action setting details:

   I jumped on his back keeping my blade inside the wound. It was the most uncomfortable position but I was not letting go of my best weapon. Dropping the rifle, he tried to throw me off his backI dodged, twisting my weapon inside him. He screamed but didn’t fall. Stubborn bastard.

   He threw us both at the nearest support beam, almost crushing my back in the process. Cement crumpled down to the floor followed by a chunk as big as my head. I lost hold of my saber and clinged to his armor with desperate fingers. He slammed us again against the cement, my head ringing from the clash. Another piece dropped in his feet and he almost tripped on it. One more time and he could bring the whole ceiling down.

       So you can see the difference. In the first we see the characters fight, just the characters, their moves, their thoughts but it’s like they are in a blank space. We know nothing of the surroundings, we are disconnected from them. 

    In the second we get to picture the whole place – the pillar that is crumbling down, the floor covered in remnants of objects, the holes in the ceiling, etc.  The characters and their surroundings are not so disconnected. 

     The best and easiest way to invoke more emotion and bring to life a scene is to use the right words rather than use many words. There are a few suggestions of words you can use in terms of using sounds setting:

     So try it out yourself. Choose a plain sentence – one of your own, one of mine, think of a new one just for this. Then try to add setting descriptions that use the sounds in the list. How does that work for you? Feel free to share your exercises in the comments.

     Next post will be covering the use of the sense of smell in your writing and how that can enhance your story even further. See you then 🙂

Yours truly, 

Joana

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